Tag Archives: nonfiction

Review: The Princess Diarist

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know what to write, with Carrie Fisher’s death still so recent in my memory. I didn’t like “Wishful Drinking,” one of her earlier books, though know my scathing feelings towards the book feel sour and wrong somehow, and I have to resist the urge to go back and revise that old opinion. And I know that instinct is wrong, because it goes against my core belief that all books should exist independently of their authors and that, even for a memoir, it’s nothing personal. It’s just the book.

Fortunately, I’m happy to say that I enjoyed “Princess Diarist” much more. It’s a trim little volume at just over 200 pages (and several of those pages are diary excerpts, so it’s even shorter than you might think), but it broaches on a subject that I’ve been eager to read about and was, in my opinion, conspicuously absent in “Wishful Drinking,” which is how Fisher felt/feels about Star Wars. This is a book largely dedicated to that question.

It also has the benefit of having been written post-Episode VII, which saw a return of Leia as a character . . . one that I think Fisher, had she lived, would have been even more proud of. General Organa is an evolution of Princess Leia, an older, wiser, grizzled veteran who’s been fighting wars her entire life, who matured away from the metal bikini sex symbol eye candy role into a tough, capable leader. It’s a good evolution of the character and it’s a profound loss that we’ll never get a follow-up book to hear about that evolution in Fisher’s own writing voice.

So, if you’re wondering, should you read this book? Yes, you should. It’ll give you a lot to think about with Star Wars, character, and fandom, and it was already a great book even before Fisher’s death. Now, it’s a chance to hear her voice one more time and appreciate the insight she’s gleaned over her life and the perspective that she had.

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Review: Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life

Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your LifeWho’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life by Richard Florida
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

SimCity 2000 was a computer game in the late 90s that I absolutely loved. I played it for hours and hours, building city after city, destroying them and rebuilding them like so many sand castles. There have been more recent versions of that game, newer ones with better graphics, but none have ever managed to evoke the special feeling that this one did.

There was a neat little easter egg in the game; if you built a library and clicked on it, you had an option to “ruminate” which would display an essay by Neil Gaiman about cities. I’d like to quote part of it here:

“Occasionally I idle time away by wondering what cities would be like, were they people. Manhattan is, in my head, fast-talking, untrusting, well-dressed but unshaven. London is huge and confused. Paris is elegant and attractive, older than she looks. San Francisco is crazy, but harmless, and very friendly. It’s a foolish game: cities aren’t people.”

I’ve never gotten that particular image of my head, the idea of cities as people, with their own personalities and quirks.

I’ve lived in three cities throughout my life, each one about as far from the others as you can get. I started in upstate New York before moving to southern Arizona and now I find myself in the Pacific Northwest. The move to the Northwest happened only a few years ago and while “Who’s Your City” contains a lot of information that would have been helpful in making that decision to move, it ultimately confirmed and validated my decision. So, that’s good.

This is a good book. We don’t think about where we live often enough and just how much of a role that this plays in our lives. Author Richard Florida eloquently makes his point about just how much where you live will affect all aspects of your life, from what job you might have to who you might marry to how you’d raise your kids. This is information that I think everyone needs to consider; don’t just let your city be your city because it’s where you grew up. Even if you choose to stay in that city, it should be your conscious choice, not just the result of “well, here’s where I am.”

Unfortunately, aside from pointing out all the details about where you live being important for your life, aside from stats and graphs about who’s going where, there isn’t much more that’s done with the question of “who’s your city.” I came to the book hoping for profiles, maybe even write-ups about “who” some of the most populated cities really are. I might have even been hoping for a continuation of the little game that Gaiman’s essay started, imagining each city as having its own personality.

We don’t find anything like that here and while Florida is the consummate scholar who leaves no stone unturned and provides copious research to affirm his thesis, after the first few chapters, you get where he’s coming from, you’re likely in agreement, and if you’re like me, you were probably hoping for more time spent with the cities themselves. Unfortunately, that desire will need to be filled by another book.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of good information here. If you’re thinking of moving in the near future, I’d bump this one up to a strong recommendation. If you’ve already moved or you’re planning on sticking around, read it anyway, if only for the satisfaction of feeling validated after the fact.

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Review: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideBeing a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started off greatly intrigued by the premise, but my expectations for what the book was going to be ended up not panning out. From the author’s forward, what I imagined I would be reading was a series of narrative nonfiction essays told from the perspective of the various beasts. Each beast would be a different character and various things would happen to them; all approximated, of course, because of the whole subjective nature of individual minds, especially human minds trying to approximate nonhuman minds. However, none of those expectations panned out.

Ultimately, we have musings that wander back and forth through various topics while making commentary on eating earthworms, tasting slugs (seriously, don’t ever do that), and rolling around in the woods for a while. While it started out interesting enough, the essay on otters started to lose me, as the author begins to create an emotional understanding of different animals that feels painfully antiquarian. And then, of course, there’s his opinion on cats (he hates them) and that was where I found myself in the weeds with regards to “Being a Beast.” I finished it out of a sense of obligation, having come so far (also I never allow myself to review books that I have not read in their entirety.)

Final verdict: a weird book that starts off with an interesting premise, but meanders and chases its own tail. There are a few interesting anecdotes along the way (such as the discussion with a police officer about how the author is “trying to be a fox”), but they are few and far between. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine when the author is being sincere and when he is being hyperbolic. I came away from the book feeling mostly disappointed by my misunderstanding of the premise. Which might say more about me than the book (it does), but that’s what you get when you read reviews from nonprofessional dilettantes such as myself.

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Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of Bill Bryson’s books. This is the first one I didn’t really enjoy and I’m sad to say that.

I picked this one up, quite appropriately, I thought, during my honeymoon to the UK. There was something marvelous about reading about traveling in the UK while doing so myself, particularly when the Welsh town of Lladudno makes a brief appearance. We stayed there for a few days and it was quite lovely, so it was a thrill to see it get mentioned. Bryson is a witty writer and at his best, his observations earn laughs or at least smiles.

However.

I’m not sure if it’s because this was one of his earliest books and he refined his style or if it’s because he was just in a bad mood during a lot of these journeys or if he mellowed out later with age, but the Bryson in this book is . . . well, mean. He seems like a jerk. There were exchanges earlier in the book that made me wince a little bit, but I wrote down the exact moment he lost me:

From Chapter 26:

In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into a crowded McDonald’s, waited ages in a long, shuffling line, which made me even more fractious and impatient, and finally ordered a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin.

“Do you want an apple turnover with that?” asked the young man who served me.

I looked at him for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said, “do I appear to be brain-damaged?”

“Pardon?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t ask for an apple turnover, did I?”

“Uh, . . . no.”

“So do I look as if I have some mental condition that would render me unable to request an apple turnover if I wanted one?”

“No, it’s just that we’re told to ask everyone, like.”

“What, you think everyone in Edinburgh is brain-damaged?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone, like.”

“Well, I don’t want an apple turnover, which is why I didn’t ask for one. Is there anything else you’d like to know if I don’t want?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone.”

“Do you remember what I do want?”

He looked in confusion at his cash register. “Uh, an Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee.”

“Do you think I might have it this morning or shall we talk some more?”

“Oh, uh, right, I’ll just get it.”

“Thank you.”

Where do I even start? He complains about the kid behind the counter wasting his time, when he was the one that prompted the ridiculous exchange by being an asshole in the first place. A simple “no, thank you” to the question would have had him right along on his way.

We all have bad days. I get that. And he notes before and after this passage that he was feeling “fractious.” But here’s the thing. I’ve been that teenage kid, working a shitty entry job that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to be able to afford to drive myself to school. I’ve had stupid corporate requirements and disinterested managers force me to use scripts, force me to pitch things that I knew customers didn’t want, forced me to upsell, etc. I know that this isn’t the kid’s fault. And anyone who’s been on the other side of that cash register knows it, too.

If you’ve ever worked food service or retail or any other job where you’re the public face, you know that the guy or girl at that register has no power. They don’t make any of these decisions. Why upbraid them, except to make them feel worse and to make yourself feel better? Everyone knows this, except, apparently, for Bryson. But all I felt after reading this passage was a reminder of all the goddamn times a customer has been an asshole to me over the years and how much it sucks, how much it ruins the rest of your day, and how much you despise people that do that to you. A simple “no, thank you” would get everyone on with the rest of their day. Hell, if you really felt the need to make a point, ask to talk to a shift manager, who only has slightly more power than the poor kid, but at least there’s a chance they have some control over it (although, having been the shift manager too, I can say that it’s unlikely).

Here’s the thing. It’s only a few pages and it comes towards the end of the book. But were this a fiction novel, this would be a character defining moment. This is the sort of thing that shows us who a person is, by how he treats his perceived lessers. And this, compared with earlier comments, makes me feel as though Bryson is a mean person, a jerk, the kind of tourist I cringe when I see, the kind of person who would embarrass the hell out of me doing exactly this kind of thing, all because he feels so fucking smart that he has to point out all the little bits of bullshit in the world around him, when the rest of us just want to get through that bullshit as intact as possible, without breaking character.

Fortunately, his later books don’t cast Bryson as this much of a churl, but rarely have I been so turned off in a book such as this. Skip this one. Read his other, better work. How the hell this chapter made it past his editor is beyond me.

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Book Review: The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence

The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of AffluenceThe New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence by David Remnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A curious mixture of the sublime and the staid. With any articles read more than a few years removed from the era in which they were written, there is a chance that they will not have aged well, that the context in which they flourished no longer permeates the world. One hopes that such things will have a certain timelessness, which would be why they’re worth putting into a book in the first place, but this doesn’t always work. And then there’s the chance that even the book itself might not be lasting, might be subject to the same whims. This collection was published in late 2001, a scant few months after the world changed.

How does this collection hold up, almost fifteen years later? Interestingly, some of it does. It’s fascinating to see Trump’s name pop up early in the book and read about him as we knew him in 2001, with little idea that in 2016, he’s be . . . well, what he is now (it should go without saying that my politics do not align with his, but as a student of the world, there’s still something interesting here. Even terrible men can be interesting). Likewise, coming back to the story of Bill Gates in the wake of the Microsoft anti-trust case . . . remember when that was a thing? It was a different world.

The book is front-loaded with its best stuff; its human stories, the ones that stand up to the test of time because they are about people in moments of time, people that, for the most part, are still around, still doing things, still interesting. Not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s fun to do the “where are they now” calculation as you read.

After that, however, things start to wander. It’s obvious we couldn’t have known in 2001 what 2016 would be, how some of the problems were eerily prescient and some we could have never imagined. Does it justify your time? Depends on how you feel about leaving books unfinished. For me, it was incumbent upon me to read everything, to earn my right to complete and review it. For you, dear reader? I think it’s fair if you pick this one up and, like trail mix or a bowl of Lucky Charms, pick out the tastiest-looking bits and leave the rest alone.

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Review: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the InternetTubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Near the end of the book, the author realizes that he’s flown all over the world to essentially look at corrugated steel boxes in nondescript warehouses and feels a moment of despair; for me, it’s the moment that points out that while “Tubes” is lofty in its aim, it’s uneven in its execution. Essentially, we really are reading a travelogue about a guy wandering around the world to visit warehouses and talk to the people who work there. For the most part, it’s rather mundane, but the book redeems itself with poetic musings about what the Internet really is, how we perceive it, and the massive amount of unseen infrastructure that go into maintaining it.

It’s a neat idea; where is the Internet? And certain aspects of it are undeniably cool, such as the undersea transoceanic cables that connect America to Europe to Africa (look up a picture if you’ve never heard of these, they are literally these insanely long cables running across the ocean). But while author Andrew Blum continually defends his mission of “wanting to visit the Internet” to the skeptical, the reality is that finding the Internet’s physical structure is much like finding the man behind the curtain. Certainly, there is expertise and skill on display. There is brilliance woven into and through the various component pieces. But what they form is something much more impressive than the physical reality. Because the physical reality tends to be a steel box with a snake’s nest of cables everywhere.

Blum’s musings on the Internet and the genesis for his quest are the book’s highlights and the question he works to answer is provocative; how much time do any of us actually spend thinking about the physical reality of this crazy network we’ve assembled? It’s exciting to consider the scope. But the reality is as mundane as the scope itself is impressive and “Tubes” loses steam when we and the author realize that. Even so, it’s a quick enough read and worth a bit of wandering for those that are curious.

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Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

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Review: Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era

Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft EraPride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era by John Heilemann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting account of the Microsoft trial, which everyone my age will remember as being “a thing” in the news for a while. But then, like many “a things,” it just sort of went away, didn’t it? The story vanished off the front page and then, years later, occasionally nerds like myself would wonder, “wait, didn’t Microsoft lose that case? Weren’t they supposed to be broken up? Why didn’t that ever happen?”

The book itself is good; Heilemann’s writing style is enjoyable enough to liven up courtroom proceedings, which are often not the most fascinating affairs (John Grisham’s entire bibliography and all Law & Order versions notwithstanding). Ultimately, though, this book is harmed by its publication date. There’s no real aftermath, no depiction of what happened next. Of course, at the time it was written, that’s because we didn’t yet know what would happen, but at the time of this review, it’s been 15 years. Would an afterword from the author have been too much to hope for?

In the end, if you’re looking to immerse yourself for a bit in the recent history of computers in the 90s, there’s enough information here to sate your hunger. But you’ll probably want more than this book offers, given how far we’ve come since then, and sadly, it seems like an update is not forthcoming. But the bones of the story are still good; if nothing else, it’s fun to see the “who’s who” mention from some of the big names in software at the time, including the occasional cameo from Steve Jobs, who hadn’t yet completed his reformation of Apple. Interesting stuff.

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Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is going to be a warts-and-all biography. I’m going to tell it like it is! No sugarcoating! But the thing is, the person in this biography has no flaws! Let me tell you how the person I wrote about is absolutely perfect, who has only the sorts of flaws that seem to make this person even better.” Yeah. How many times have I read that introduction? How many authors have promised to give all the whole story and then delivered a glossy highlights reel rather than the real thing?

I’m pleased to say that Walter Isaacson did no such thing. He promised us an intimate portrait of a brilliant, driven man who could be cold, could be ruthless, could be manipulative. Isaacson delivered on that promise.

I’m not going to go into the details of Jobs’ life; that’s what this book is for, after all. Instead, I want to tell you about the book itself. And the thing I want to tell you most is that the book is very, very good and you should read it.

I also want to tell you that I read this book on my Microsoft Surface tablet and that I’m about as dedicated a Microsoft fan as they come (ZUNE FOREVER!!!!) I’m not an Apple man. I might be in the future (ALMOST picked up an iPhone this time around, but the high price point eventually drove me off), but when I read this book, it was deep in the throes of my Windows devotion. So that’s the kind of person who is giving this book five stars. The kind of person who Steve Jobs would denigrate, were he among the living. The kind of person who doesn’t buy his products, hasn’t ever watched a product reveal, a person who doesn’t find the term “reality distortion field” as something that’s charming.

And yet. And yet.

I still love this book. I loved reading about Jobs’ life. I love tech, and love him or hate him, Jobs shaped the tech world as we know it today. Most of all, however, I loved Isaacson’s writing style. I loved his approach, the exact perfect balance between fly-on-the-wall, recounting Steve’s own voice while sometimes inserting his own editorial voice to counter some of the claims made by the reality distortion field. It’s the best kind of biography, because it’s not a monument, not a tribute, not an ode or a paean, it’s simply the story of one’s life. That’s a rare treat in and of itself, but it’s made all the more special because of the care Isaacson shows his subject. You can feel the exhaustive level of research that went into every page.

After reading this book, I’m absolutely certain I would never have wanted to work with Jobs (not that I have the technical skill to do so anyway, I won’t flatter myself). I’m not particularly certain I’d ever even like being around him, reality field or no. But I spent the past weekend with him and I am better for it. I’m better for having read his story as the world is better for having his influence through his work and his legacy. I can think of no higher recommendation than that.

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Review: Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution

Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan SolutionGetting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had the power to make everyone read one book, I think I might spend that power on this book. On the surface, it might seem an odd choice. Fred Rich’s writing style won’t move anyone to tears with descriptions of awesome beauty or powerful prose. I’d even go as far as to say it’s a bit of a textbook. And yet. And yet. Because despite the back-handed nature of this introduction, I’m about to launch into one hell of a compliment.

The ideas in this book are amazing. Rich’s argument about the “Great Estrangement,” as he called it, had me nodding along and muttering “yeah, that’s a really good point” throughout the book. It made me realize that I’m as guilty as anyone of having a short-term view of politics and political history. I may not be strident about it, but I’d fallen into the partisan rift. Rich reminded me that conservation USED to be a core tenet of conservatism, and likely still lingers just below the surface. It was a Republican that gave us the EPA, after all (even if that Republican was Nixon). Teddy Roosevelt is a legend for his dedication to conservation; the roots are there. The bones are there. It’s only recently that this “drill, baby, drill” inanity has taken root.

Rich pulls no punches. He takes the left to task for alienating the right, for making it easy for Green to be dismissed. He argues that Greens have allowed their base to be broad, but shallow; that is, many people say the environment is important, but it’s not on on the top of many voters’ list of priorities. Most of all, however, he argues that Green lost its focus. He points to other movements that have been successful and credits at least some of that success to their laser-focus on their core issue: the Civil Rights Movement and the NRA are (perhaps oddly) his two best examples and as someone who continually despairs at the sense that the NRA and the gun lobby are unstoppable, it’s hard not to agree with that point.

Rich’s core argument is that we need to get back to the Center, what he calls “Center Green.” It’s a position I’ve gravitated towards my entire life, the idea that you should persuade rather than threaten, that it’s more important to be a good ambassador than a ferocious militant. I remain convinced that PETA has done more harm than good, even if their hearts are in the right place, simply because their various stunts have created a reaction in people that is “those PETA people are assholes and I don’t like them, therefore I do not support their position.” People really do shoot the messenger; it’s human nature.

Rich argues that we need to change that and that Green needs to deploy all the tools in its kit to make it happen. We need more focus on the positive work that Green has done (remember acid rain? The impending destruction of the ozone layer?) and less apocalyptic doomsaying. We need to be willing to employ language that many progressives are uncomfortable with, but would be undeniably effective in convincing conservatives to join the cause, such as making environmentalism a moral issue. The trend right now is that the facts should speak for themselves, but the reality is that the facts aren’t enough. People are emotional and can be appealed to emotionally, and it’s not as though there isn’t plenty to be emotional about when it comes to talking about the beauty of the environment and its importance in the lives of people.

Most of all, as I read the book, I kept thinking back to a particular family member of mine. He and I don’t talk politics, ever, but I know he’s as much to the right as I am to the left. But he was the one who taught me how to hike, he taught me how to navigate by map and compass, he put together scavenger hunts for me out in the wood, and he, more than anyone else, shared such an enthusiastic love for the outdoors that I couldn’t help but follow in his example. And yet the modern Green movement has made no room under its tent for a person like him. It has done nothing to make him feel welcome. Here’s the man who is basically my environmental mentor and yet the modern Green movement does not want him, because his politics are different.

Rich argues that needs to change. Green needs to be a center issue, not a progressive one, because that’s the only way anything will every get done. It’s the only way we’re ever going to succeed; all the greatest achievements in environmentalism’s history were done by reaching across the aisle and finding common cause. And although it might seem impossible to imagine in an era of Trumpism, I think that we can rediscover the ability to work together. And this book was instrumental in helping me arrive at that conclusion. I’m ready to work towards Center Green. And I think that, if you read this book, you will most likely feel the same.

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